Arguably the most important twentieth-century modernist painter to emerge from Australasia, the New Zealander Colin McCahon (1919–1987) created works using an abstract and expressionist style that has attracted fervently devoted admirers who have remained resilient in their research and insight against a backdrop of equally fervent detractors, especially in contemporary New Zealand and Australia, where his work is still best known. McCahon’s influence, however, is best represented by noting that a 1990 national exhibit was mounted in New Zealand that was tellingly titled “After McCahon,” suggesting that McCahon’s impact divides many aspects of New Zealand art into a “before” and “after” periodization (Bloem and Browne, 2002, pp. 9–10). Generations of artists following McCahon were polarized between those who “worked within the same broad cultural parameters” (Butler and Simmons, 2008, p. 123) and those who later either opposed or rejected him.

The New Zealand poet Leigh Davis explains that the ongoing debate around McCahon’s work and its influence is because McCahon was “a big taunting painter of the unreadable” (Davis, 1999, p. 84). Referring to the likes of the Blind Series (1974), which dealt with an inability to see the real essence and value of things, it is the unreadable, according to Davis, that accounts for extremes in reaction as well as tensions in his work. Related to this, and making McCahon’s work particularly interesting, especially among modernists, is his profound engagement with religious themes throughout his work.

Appreciation of McCahon’s work continues to grow outside New Zealand as well. There is little doubt now that McCahon is to be numbered among the most accomplished and creative modernist painters in the twentieth century. McCahon’s particular religious interests, furthermore, are quite unique in modernist work—even among those few who do explicitly address religious themes. Indeed, McCahon’s deeply evocative incorporation, often brush-written in white paint on black in his intuitive, visually complex style, of long, haunting biblical phrases into many of his modernist paintings, particularly later in his career, remains among the most intriguing uses of text in all modernist work. Notably, he preferred to use the New English Bible for his biblical references.

Students of McCahon have the profound benefit of the interpretations and writings of Gordon H. Brown, who was a friend of McCahon’s for some 30 years and continues to be the articulate “Bethge” to McCahon’s “Bonhoeffer.” Of particular interest in Brown’s interpretive work is his appreciation for McCahon’s use of scripture and knowledgeable rejection of any attempt to absolve McCahon of the struggles of a contemporary Christian faith.

Writing that he and McCahon “were both involved in the quest for authentic faith in a secular New Zealand, where the traditional dogmas and symbols were becoming obsolete,” Lloyd Geering, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, has also written on McCahon and Christianity, likening McCahon to the writer of Ecclesiastes—two men who lived in “rapidly changing worlds whose respective religious traditions seemed to be dissolving into unreality” (Geering, 2006, p. 225).

The first major exhibit of McCahon’s work outside Australasia was assembled by the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam in August–November 2002 and, in recognition of the centrality of religion in McCahon’s work, was titled “A Question of Faith.” In her brief retrospective of the life of McCahon for the accompanying book, Marja Bloem takes particular note of the difficulties that modern writers on McCahon invariably have dealing with McCahon’s religious themes and interests:

"Virtually to a man, critics and art historians have approached the subject from a secular, humanist, liberal position, often discussing McCahon’s spiritual explorations as if they were a type of intellectual enterprise. The overwhelming impression is of a group both too uncomfortable to acknowledge that the artist might have wrestled with the possibility of believing in a living God, and uneasy at appearing to be anything other than sceptical of these core beliefs of the artist at a time when such beliefs are unfashionable." (Bloem and Browne, 2002, p. 14)

In the same critically important volume, the museum director Rudi Fuchs draws intriguing comparisons to other modernist artists who came from “small countries”: Asger Jorn (Jutland, Denmark) and Edvard Munch (Norway). Fuchs writes, interestingly, that “not being in a great centre of avant-garde activity can create in an artist’s mind a heightened awareness of local circumstances and traditions” (Bloem and Browne, 2002, p. 12). Certainly the New Zealand context was critically important for McCahon’s work, and this was shared intensely with a small group of other creative individuals such as the poet John Caselberg, whom he met in 1948 and collaborated closely with for a 40-year period, as Caselberg not only gave his own poetic words to McCahon to use but also accumulated multiple textual phrases from parts of the Old Testament to the artist to assemble in his paintings for specific purposes (Simpson, 2001, p. 92). New Zealand was constantly seen by its European, colonial population as being empty, silent, and lacking in any history or past (Pound, 1990, p. 11), and this wider artistic group was working to proclaim, with McCahon, “a national consciousness erected as if out of a void” (Pound, 2009, p. 2).

McCahon grew up in Dunedin, a historically Scottish settlement, which became the southernmost major city on the South Island of New Zealand (now home to the prestigious University of Otago). McCahon, however, who began to paint in the 1930s, had few resources available to him and famously studied black-and-white reproductions of European masters among his wide-ranging influences. However, in an often-quoted comment from McCahon himself, he spoke of his fascination as a child with watching a sign painter at work in Dunedin. The significance of this story is that it seems to anticipate McCahon’s famous fascination with letters and texts and use of white on black that would become a central feature of McCahon’s late oeuvre (Bloem and Browne, 2002, p. 160).

A second major influence on McCahon’s early work was the work of M. T. “Toss” Woollaston (see, e.g., “Mapua,” 1935, in Bloem and Browne, 2002, p. 163), whose impressionistic renderings of local New Zealand scenes encouraged McCahon to explore the structure and rawness of the New Zealand landscape as a theme of his work. Important, too, were the often tense discussions about religion with Toss Woollaston and Woollaston’s uncle, Frank Tosswill, a Buchmanite (a twentieth-century religious reform movement). Toss and Edith Woollaston’s daughter, Anna, married the poet and great friend of McCahon’s, John Caselberg.

McCahon’s life as an artist follows a fascinating arc, punctuated by his periods of intense exploration of religious themes and a strong affinity for symbolism particularly expressed through light. His early, and more colorfully pictorial, religious works (first exhibited in 1947–1948), are particularly noted for placing clearly rendered biblical figures in the New Zealand landscape, suggesting a sense that New Zealand itself may hope to achieve a kind of “Promised Land.” It was also during the war that McCahon engaged in serious religious discussions with pacifist friends, especially James Baxter, the noted New Zealand Christian poet (and founder of a Utopian community with Maori cooperation near the Wanganui River) who was the son of Archibald Baxter. The elder Baxter had become famous for his stand as a conscientious objector during World War I. In 1943, McCahon witnessed the shooting of an African American soldier near an American military encampment in Wellington, which had a profound impact on him and “heightened his awareness of the brutality and senseless destruction of war” (Bloem and Browne, 2002, p. 168).

McCahon’s earlier religious works were intended to be clear and accessible to even the uneducated general art audience in New Zealand. He even incorporated speech balloons, like comic strips, inspired by a locally produced soap powder packet (“Rinso”) in an attempt to link his work to everyday life—placing the discussions in the here and now. These earlier works, however, did not receive a warm welcome. The intentional primitivism of the painted figures—inspired by McCahon’s overall interest in modernism and Cubism—was widely rejected. Sadly, this early cold reception would intensify even as McCahon abandoned his earlier attempts to be transparent, and McCahon seemed deeply haunted by the amount of public rejection that he faced during most of his life, seeing serious appreciation of his work only late in his life before serious dementia ended his artistic career nine years before his death.

The second period of strongly religious thematic paintings saw the emergence of the Elias series. Here, McCahon draws on the crucifixion narratives of the Gospels, but most particularly Matthew, and appears especially fascinated with the reaction to the death of Jesus among onlookers, some of whom are portrayed by the Gospel of Mark as misunderstanding Jesus’s call to “Eloi” (Aramaic, “my God”) to be a call to “Elias,” the prophet Elijah, perhaps to come and save him (Mark 15:35–36; Matt 27:47, 49). McCahon seemed especially intrigued with the notion that some in the crowds seemed curious as to whether God would save Jesus from his death. This uncertain curiosity is read by some to be a reflection of McCahon’s personal struggles with his Christian faith. However, doubt and faith did not seem a strong either/or for McCahon. He wrote in 1972 about his interest in the Lazarus story, for example, stating: “ … questions and answers, faith so simple and beautiful and doubts still pushing to somewhere else. It really got me down with joy and pain. I loved painting it” (Bloem and Browne, 2002, p. 211). The art historian Willian McAloon also wrote on this apparent wavering of faith in McCahon’s work, saying:

"This wavering between faith and doubt had of course been McCahon’s larger subject throughout his career. It is apparent from his earliest religious paintings, through the Elias series, to Victory Over Death 2. “A simple I AM at first,” McCahon said of this most assertive of his works, “but not so simple really as doubts do come in here too.” Faith as thus is always a question for McCahon, always subject to and defined by doubt.”" (2003, p. 69)

Between the second and third series we are highlighting here, McCahon also began to experiment with Maori artistic forms and was especially impressed with Maori prophetic figures. The indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori, had engaged in a hard-fought war with European settlers in the mid-nineteenth century but also, somewhat paradoxically, adopted Christianity in massive numbers. Of particular interest, however, is the fact that Maori religious leaders often reinterpreted Christianity from a strongly Maori perspective.

Influenced especially by the Old Testament prophets, a number of significant (and largely unprecedented in being pantribal) Maori religious and political leaders arose in succession during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. McCahon, like many modern New Zealanders (including Baxter), became especially taken with the story of two Maori Christian prophetic leaders, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai (pronounced “tay-FEET-ee”) and Tohu (“toe-who”), who founded a pan-tribal village based on an explicitly stated commitment to nonviolent resistance known as “Parihaka.” Parihaka, despite the nonviolent commitment of its members, was bombarded in 1881, and the population dispersed in one of the greatest national tragedies of New Zealand history. McCahon produced his Untitled (The Parihaka Triptych) honoring both Te-Whiti and Tohu in 1972, with symbolic paintings incorporating Christian symbolism.

McCahon would continue to occasionally incorporate Maori symbolism and references to religious leaders in his work from the 1970s forward as well as the use of the Maori language, which was often not understood by mainstream New Zealand. Many commentators observe the significance of this nontranslation, advocating for the experience of not “reading” the painting but looking at it as a painting, “independent of the word’s meanings” (Davis, 1999, p. 87).

McCahon’s and Caselberg’s profound interest in Maori culture and spirituality in particular has also been linked to their outsider relationship in society and desire to escape from the confines of class as a provocative act, to the opening up for rereading by differing voices, and a belief in a vision of the prophetic role of the artist in New Zealand society (Davis, 1999, p. 89). McCahon wrote, in a letter to his gallery dealer in 1973, that he felt that the “Christian Walk” and the “Maori Walk” have a lot in common (Mane-Wheoki, 2003, p. 51).

The third and final major period of McCahon’s explicitly religious paintings constitutes the end of his painting career in the early 1980s. By this time McCahon had moved into a period of producing paintings that consisted almost entirely of written words, or sequences of numbers, with rare (and often entirely absent) pictorial representations of any kind. In this late period, McCahon brought together his fascinations with the Epistle to the Hebrews and its descriptions of faith, on the one hand, with passages drawn from the book of Ecclesiastes, on the other.

McCahon’s use of Ecclesiastes late in his career, and especially during the final years of his painting when he was well aware of his encroaching dementia and the near the end of his career, has suggested to some that he abandoned his faith entirely in the face of his personal suffering. This has been vigorously disputed by Gordon Brown (2010), McCahon’s main biographer, his son, William, and the art historian William McAloon, who questions the biographical narrative around the late works and posits that the bleakness of the paintings served rather to make faith “that much more necessary, that much more urgent” (2003, p. 68).

McCahon’s work is exemplary for his profound combination of faith themes, phrases, and texts combined with his dynamic, ambiguous, and symbolic modernist vision, and it seems clear that his work will continue to be appreciated beyond his native New Zealand as an important exemplar of synthesizing a life exploring faith, especially in scripture and contemporary art.

[See also AUSTRALIAN AND NEW ZEALAND ART.]

Bibliography

  • Bloem, Marja, and Martin Browne, eds. Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum and Craig Potton, 2002.
  • Brown, Gordon H. Colin McCahon: Artist. Auckland, New Zealand: Reed, 1993.
  • Brown, Gordon H. Towards a Promised Land: On the Life and Art of Colin McCahon. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 2010.
  • Butler, R., and Simmons, L. E. “Practical Religion: On the After-life of Colin McCahon.” Landfall 215 (2008): 128–138.
  • Davis, Leigh. “Maori Bay Quarry: Maori Prophets in the Work of Colin McCahon.” Art Asia Pacific 23 (1999): 82–89.
  • Geering, Lloyd. Wrestling with God: The Story of My Life. Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams, 2006.
  • Mane-Wheoki, Jonathan. “McCahon and the Maori ‘Walk.’ ” In Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, Papers from a Seminar, pp. 51–62. Auckland, New Zealand: Sue Fisher Art Trust and Auckland Art Gallery, 2003.
  • McAloon, William. “Where Is Uncle Frank? McCahon’s Late Works and A Question of Faith. In Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, Papers from a Seminar, pp. 63–79. Auckland, New Zealand: Sue Fisher Art Trust, Auckland Art Gallery, 2003.
  • McCahon, Colin. Victory Over Death 2. 1970 Synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas 2075 × 5977 mm. National Gallery of Australia, Gift of the New Zealand Government 1978. www.mccahon.co.nz/cm001502.
  • McCahon, Colin. Untitled (The Parihaka Triptych). 1972. Synthetic polymer paint on 3 canvas panels. Panel 1: 865 × 1752 mm; Panel 2: 1753 × 867 mm; Panel 3: 865 × 1752 mm. Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand. www.mccahon.co.nz/cm001225.
  • McCahon, Colin. The Blind Series, nos. I–V. 1974. www.mccahon.co.nz.
  • Pound, Francis. “Colin McCahon and the Language of Practical Religion.” Art Monthly Australia 32 (1990): 9–13.
  • Pound, Francis. The Invention of New Zealand: Art and National Identity, 1930–1970. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 2009.
  • Simmons, L. E. “ ‘I Shall Go and Wake Him’: The Figura of Lazarus in Colin McCahon’s Painting.” In Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith: Papers for a Seminar, edited by Roger Taberner. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland City Art Gallery, 2003.
  • Simmons, L. E. “ ‘I AM’: Colin McCahon Genius or Apostle??” Interstices: Journal of Architecture and Related Arts 7 (2006): 85–94.
  • Simpson, Peter. Answering Hark: McCahon/Caselberg, Painter/Poet. Nelson, New Zealand: Craig Potton, 2001.

Susan Gardiner and Daniel L. Smith-Christopher